The weather forecast is in, and it’s grim—at least, if you’re sick of the cold. That’s right, Pennsylvania’s (and Billy Murray's) favorite groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, has seen his shadow, thereby predicting six more weeks of winter (thanks a lot, Phil).
The Groundhog Day custom is rooted in the animals’ emergence from hibernation, which, according to legend, is on February 2nd. In reality, the furry weather prognosticators waken much later, at least in the northern parts of a range that extends from east-central Alaska and British Columbia south to northern Idaho, east through most of southern Canada, and south to parts of Kansas and Alabama and into Virginia. In Missouri, however, where groundhogs are also found, they might emerge as early as the first week of February.
In preparation for their Rip Van Winkle sleep, groundhogs develop a heavy layer of fat in later summer and early fall to sustain them. Then they dig a burrow, complete with a “hibernation chamber,” curl up, and pass out—well, almost. Their body temperature falls substantially, their breathing slows to once every six minutes, and their heart beats—which once clocked 100 times per minute—drop to four.
Now, in honor of the venerable hirsute meteorologist, here's a quiz to test your groundhog IQ (answers at the end):
1) True or False?
Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks.
2) What family do groundhogs belong in?
a) Weasels, skunks, and kin
d) Rats and mice
3) True or False?
Groundhogs are exclusively carnivorous.
4) During hibernation, groundhogs’ body temperature can drop to:
a) 32° F
b) <40° F
c) 70° F
d) ~85° F
5) How often do groundhogs have litters?
a) Once per year
b) Three times per year
c) Five times per year
d) Once every other year
1) True. The name "woodchuck," comes from wuchak, a Native American word used by the Cree to identify a few different animals of similar size and color. It has nothing to do with groundhogs' behavior or their habitat. Incidentally, the name "groundhog" stems from its appearance: squat, with a waddling gait and ground-dwelling habit.
2) b. Groundhogs are members of the squirrel family. And like their species name, Marmota monax, suggests, they're also marmots.
3) False. Groundhogs are almost complete vegetarians, noshing on green vegetation including grasses, clover, and alfalfa. They'll also wreak havoc on gardens by eating corn. Sometimes they scale trees in search of delicacies like apples.
4) b. Groundhogs' body temperature drops from 97°F to less than 40°F during hibernation.
5) a. Groundhogs have one litter per year consisting of about a handful of young. Though blind at birth, after a month, the young can see and crawl. They disperse at two months.
*Most facts compiled from the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammalsand the Missouri Department of Conservation.